As the January transfer window closes Michael Owen and Robbie Keane in particular face uncertain futures at their respective clubs, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.
Rewind ten years and these two players represented the future of the English Premier League. Michael Owen was in his third full season as the main striker at Liverpool while Robbie Keane had just finalised a dramatic transfer to Inter Milan after finishing top-scorer for Coventry City in his first year in the Premier League.
Both strikers represented all that was good about English football. Owen was the hottest prospect in the game and had held talks with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal before signing for the Reds. Keane was his English counterpart’s equivalent in Ireland and also had every major club scouting him before surprisingly moving to Wolves.
Now at 30, each player is surplus to requirements at their club.
Robbie Keane’s Career ; From High to Low to High to Low…
Keane has endured something of a nightmare during the last two years. The Spurs captain had just enjoyed his best season in a white jersey, in 2007/’08 when scoring 23 goals in 54 games as the second striker. His form had helped Tottenham move up the table and consolidate the Lilywhites as viable top four contenders so when Liverpool came calling it was a move well deserved by an exemplary professional.
Unfortunately Keane walked into a political war that was being waged between Rafael Benitez and Rick Parry and all of a sudden his dream move had turned into a nightmare.
During the same period Juande Ramos had been sacked as Spurs manager and replaced by Harry Redknapp. The new Tottenham boss immediately went back to Liverpool, who had yet to finalize the payments on Keane’s transfer, and signed the ex-captain back.
The strikers return to Spurs has hardly worked though with the Irishman suffering from a massive drop in confidence while his fellow forwards at the club have all raised and improved their games over the last 18 months with the end result seeing the Irishman gain more splinters from sitting on the bench at White Hart Lane.
Keane’s career has always been one that has threatened to reach greatness.
Upon turning Liverpool down for Wolves, the Tallaght native was thrust straight into action at Molineaux where he earned rave reviews. It came as no surprise to see a Premiership team break the transfer record for a teenager to just two years after moving to England.
Less than 12 months later and Massimo Morati had decided to part with £13 million, double what Coventry had paid Wolves for the signature, and Keane was winging his way to the San Siro to link up with Marcelo Lippi’s title chasing Inter Milan squad.
After a poor start to the season Lippi was sacked and replaced by Marco Tardelli. The future Irish Assistant Manager deemed Keane as surplus to requirements and shipped the youngster out after just 14 games in Milan.
David O’Leary’s Leeds United were flying high in the Premier League and were one of the most exciting attack minded teams of the time. They came in for Keane and signed him on loan until the end of the season, becoming the Irish striker’s fourth club in four years.
Nine goals in his first 14 games pushed Leeds up the table but they could still only manage to finish fourth, one point behind Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool.
O’Leary decided to part with £12 million such was Keane’s good form and it finally looked as if he had found somewhere to settle. However, he suffered a huge dip in confidence the following year, 2001/02, and became only a bit part player for Leeds.
His form seemed to mirror Leeds’ financial problems and just one year later Keane was on the way to his fifth club, Tottenham Hotspur.
The following six seasons were easily the most productive part of Keane’s football career. He set a Premier League record when he became the only player in EPL history to score double figures six seasons in a row as he cemented himself into various Tottenham managers’ teams.
If anything can be said of his first time at Tottenham it is that Keane is a consummate professional. He often found himself out of the team and on the bench but he never panicked, threatened transfers, or criticised his managers for not picking him.
He always dug in and kept plugging away thus gaining the respect of his peers and managers alike. It was this attitude that saw Keane named as Spurs’ captain when Ledley King was out injured and when given the chance he invariably shone.
The main problem with Keane’s game though is that this attitude only seems to show itself when the chips are down. Some players can’t play in big games, some can only play in big games, some can only play when there is no pressure and some only thrive under pressure, it is the games great players that have the attitude for all occasions. Keane, unfortunately, only seems to play under personal pressure rather than game pressure.
107 goals in 254 games is an excellent record so when he moved to Liverpool, with better players, it was expected that his goals to games tally would improve. History would tell us that this would not be the case and now, back at Spurs, Keane is looking at yet another move to revive his career again.
Michael Owen’s Career; From High to Low to High to Low…
Michael Owen, like Keane, once had the world at his feet. If anything the prodigious youth was even more of a prospect than the Irishman and was.
The only English player to have won the Ballon d’Or (European Footballer of the Year in 2001) since 1979, and the only English player ever to win World Footballer of the Year, is now on the verge of seeing his career hit the scrap-heap at the tender age of 30.
What has gone so wrong for Michael Owen?
Owen burst onto the scene in 1997 after he made his debut as a substitute for Liverpool against Joe Kinnear’s Wimbledon and then scored to leave the Anfield faithful screaming for more.
Liverpool had snapped up the most wanted teen-ager in Europe, after Owen had held talks with Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, and a host of top clubs from Europe.
In his time at Anfield, he had an excellent goal-to-game ratio, 118 goals in 216 games, and won the PFA Young Player of the Year in his first full season as a pro after he notched up a very respectable 18 goals.
However, he injured his hamstring the following season, and so was to begin his long running problem with that particular recurring injury.
Three years later, Owen’s hamstrings were still giving him and his club major problems. He was sent to see hamstring specialist Hans Wolfhart in Germany as Liverpool tried to fix this problem once and for all.
Initially, the operation was deemed a success. The 2000/01 season was a huge one for club and player alike.
Liverpool won five trophies, Owen scored 28 goals and he went on to be the first English player since Kevin Keegan in 1979 to win the Ballon d’Or as well as become the only English player ever to win the World Footballer of the Year award, all by the age of 22.
Michael Owen had the world at his feet.
The next season was another hugely successful one for the player, but his injury problems returned with a vengeance in 2003/04. Without him in the team, Liverpool faltered at every hurdle, and Gerard Houllier was sacked.
Rafael Benitez took over as manager and immediately set about changing the formation at the club, to one that would not suit Owen or Steven Gerrard, the two jewels in the crown at Anfield.
Owen was almost out of contract, with a manager who did not see him as his ideal striker and so began a kind of standoff where Owen did not play any Champions League games in case he became cup tied.
Real Madrid began to show interest in the player and he was sold to the club for around £8m. This move was a huge one for the player, he badly wanted to win the Champions League trophy and Madrid were beginning Florentino Perez’s “Galacticos I” phase, so it seemed like the place to be.
Ironically, Liverpool went on to win the trophy in the very year that Owen had chosen to move.
At Real Madrid, Owen was never really given a fair crack at the whip. Utilised as a squad player at best, the striker only started 15 of his 41 games at the club. Finding the fact that he was a squad player was hard for Owen to take, and his form dipped dramatically.
Despite his erratic form and not being used to his full potential, Owen still scored an impressive 18 goals at the Bernabeau. But his time was an unhappy one, and the following season, his advisers began to look for a new team in the EPL.
Liverpool did not want him back; Rafael Benitez’s project was beginning to find some shape. Steven Gerrard had been moved from midfield into a support striker role, and most of the deadwood had left.
Manchester United was uninterested in the price that Madrid were demanding, as were other heavyweights Chelsea and Arsenal.
It became apparent very quickly; that if Michael Owen was to move back to the Premiership it would be to a team outside of the recognised big four.
Spurs were linked but thought the fee was exorbitant, Aston Villa looked elsewhere, Everton were a non-runner, and all of a sudden the only club with money available were Newcastle United.
The World Cup was only one year away so in August 2005, Michael Owen joined Newcastle United.
And immediately got injured. The training methods at Newcastle were not as scientific or as tailored as those at Liverpool and Madrid, and Owen tore his thigh muscle in one of his first training sessions.
The injury kept him out of action for two months, but true to his class, Owen scored on his debut against Blackburn.
His good form was only temporary though, as a broken metatarsal in December. The injury ruled Owen out for five months and he made his return in the last game of the season against Birmingham.
He was named in Sven Goran-Erikkson’s squad for the World Cup in Germany but disaster was to strike again, and he ruptured his cruciate ligament in the first minute of the first game in the tournament.
The injury kept him out for almost one full year.
In pre-season for the 2007/08 season, Owen again damaged a thigh muscle, but was only out for one month this time. But after returning with goals in consecutive games he underwent surgery for a hernia, which kept him out for another month.
He returned to action in November, but was immediately ruled out for another month again after another thigh strain.
Kevin Keegan took over in January, and Owen began his best run of matches in a Newcastle jersey. He played unhindered until the end of the season and managed to bag 11 goals in that time.
The following pre-season, Owen contracted mumps, which kept him out of training for the entire summer, and then picked up a calf strain when he did return to training. Another injury-ravaged season saw Owen only play 27 games and score eight goals.
Sir Alex Ferguson offered Owen a lifeline and a path back to the top but once again injuries have plagued his career.
Where To Now?
As it stands, neither player will contribute significantly to their clubs for the rest of the season with Harry Redknapp going as far as to say that Keane will definitely move in January whereas United are expected to run Owen’s contract down to June.
From being regarded as the best young English striker since the great Jimmy Greaves, Owen has managed 216 goals in 457 games since 1996.
Keane for his part has contributed 208 in 538 games.
Both sets of records are still good enough to attract a whole plethora of clubs, but whereas most expected these two players to be fighting it out with title chasing teams at this stage they are now more likely to find themselves in the thick of the battle for mid-table obscurity.
They are both blessed with indominatable attitudes that Jim Stynes would be proud of and have had more chances to make excuses for poor moments in their career’s than most professionals would have in their lifetime.
But they have fought back from career threatening injuries and lack of faith by managers time and time again.
The real question now though is how will they face up the same questions as 30-year-old men?
As far as football is concerned they are now entering the twilight of their careers and are now independently wealthy. In short, they do not need to play.
Keane’s combined transfer’s have cost £70.3 million and must be something of a record whereas Michael Owen’s have cost just £24 million but the English striker has made huge amounts of money from horse racing.
Now as we move towards 2011 the two players who were expected to shape the game for years to come in 2000 have huge questions to ask themselves.
Both are in different parts of their career, Keane still has two years left on his contract with Spurs and is still his country’s main striker while Owen has just six months left on his contract with Manchester United with the prospect of him ever donning the Three Lions once more looking severely unlikely.
From here both players’ main suitors look like being Aston Villa, Everton or any number of relegation threatened sides.
Keane would most probably take the transfer. It would represent the last move in his career and would offer a chance to retire on his own terms. This is important to many footballers because injuries, poor managers, and bad luck often mean that players limp out of the game rather than leave it with dignity intact.
This is what will most probably rule Michael Owen’s train of thought as June nears.
He has played for Liverpool, Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Newcastle in a career that has been spent, for the most part, training and playing with the highest calibre of player.
Knowing what we know about Michael Owen’s injury ravaged body and career, is it likely that the striker will want to drop down to relegation level for the twilight of his career? One would have to suspect the answer would be no and that retirement may figure heavily in the United players’ mind as June nears.
Football is a cruel master as can be seen by Michael Owen’s and Robbie Keane’s careers. They have not been bad by any means, but they have not hit anywhere near the expectations laid before them in the late ’90s.